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Chain and Wreath Cents (1793)

Chain Cent (1793)

In 1793, democracy was still a struggling and unproven form of government. In France, the revolution that erupted with such force four years earlier began the year with the beheading of Louis XVI, and that country's struggle with democracy degenerated into near anarchy with the Reign of Terror. Meanwhile, the fledgling U.S. was trying to establish its place among the sovereign nations of the world. One of the issues receiving President Washington's attention was the necessity for a solid and respectable system of coinage. To that end, he and his wife Martha donated $75 worth of silver tableware, and the famous half dismes of 1792 were struck, making "a small beginning" toward coinage, as he stated in his Annual Address in November 1792.

A case can be made that the 1792 half dismes, the silver-center cents, or the Birch cents were the first coins struck by the United States. However, the first regular coins struck by the federal government on its own machinery and within its own premises were the 36,103 Chain cents struck in the first twelve days of March of 1793. Henry Voight was responsible for designing and engraving the dies for these historic coins, and his qualifications for such a job were minimal to say the least.

Voight was a skilled operational mechanic, and was well known as a watch maker. Six months after helping demolish a whiskey still on the site of what was to be the first Mint building, Voight was ordered by mint Director Rittenhouse to place into effect his "plan" which included designing, engraving, and striking pattern cents. One was designed by him at the urging of Thomas Jefferson the famous silver-center cent. It was this design that served as the model for the Chain cent of 1793.

Despite his lack of experience as a die cutter, Voight did at least realize the limitations of the medium in which he had to work. With the small hand presses then in use, if the central device of Liberty was to have any appreciable relief, then the reverse design had to have a simple layout with much open space in the fields. The head of Liberty and chain device on the reverse was well suited to these needs.

The chain design was simple enough and is easily the most successful element on the coin. Its fifteen interlocking links form an unbroken chain, with the words ONE CENT and the fraction 1/100 inside. The chain device was an obvious allusion to the interconnectedness of the states in the Union. This same device had previously been used on Continental Currency to signify the common, shared cause of the 13 rebellious colonies. It had more recently been seen on the widely circulated Fugio cents of 1787, which makes the public reaction of 1793 all the more difficult to understand.

Many people associated the chain device with the chains of slavery. Numerous specimens were struck from clashed dies, a minting problem that occurs when the obverse and reverse dies clash with each other without a blank planchet between them, leaving an impression of the obverse on the reverse and vice versa. Coins struck thereafter will show an impression of both obverse and reverse on each side. One contemporary critic who referred to "Liberty in chains" was likely referring to die clashed coins which would show traces of the chain in front of Liberty's neck and face.

The obverse design was open to criticism, not over the symbolism represented by the figure of Liberty, but for purely aesthetic reasons. Respectable women in the late 18th century had neatly coiffed hair, quite unlike the disheveled look seen on the figure of Liberty on the Chain cent. Various contemporary observers accused Ms. Liberty of having a look of madness or savagery. It was undoubtedly the universally disapproving comments that the Mint received and Voight took personally, that resulted in his assigning the task of cutting the dies for the next cent design (the Wreath cent) to a Mint employee who had true artistic talent, Adam Eckfeldt.

The die steel used to produce the Chain cents was of poor quality, and four obverse dies were used with three reverse dies. The most famous variety in the series has the word AMERICA abbreviated as AMERI. on the reverse. This is a highly prized coin as it is considered the first variety struck of the first regular issue produced in the United States Mint. Probably no more than 1,500 to 2,000 Chain cents may actually survive today. Many of these are impaired, low grade coins, and there may only be ten or so known today in mint condition, with a dozen in AU, and perhaps as many as 35 in XF condition.

While 1793 was decades before regular proofs were struck, there is one Chain cent that most experts agree is definitely a prooflike presentation piece. To early copper aficionados, this piece is known simply as "The Coin!" It was struck on a very broad planchet, and it appears that more than one blow from the dies was used to bring up the extra detail on this magnificent coin. It has been owned by the most illustrious group of copper collectors of each generation since its manufacture. The pedigree for this most famous Chain cent began with the father of coin collecting in this country, Joseph Mickley. It has also been in the collections of Sylvester Crosby, Dr. Hall, Virgil Brand (the beer magnate), Henry Clay Hines, Dr. Sheldon (who wrote the standard reference on early coppers), and R.E. Naftzger.

Grading Chain cents can be especially tricky for the novice as the device of Liberty was punched into the die more shallowly than the chain on the reverse. As a result, on coins that have the obverse virtually worn smooth, the reverse will still show complete chain detail. On coins in grades between Very Good and Extremely Fine, remaining hair detail on Liberty is the most important factor in establishing the coin's grade, in addition to the overall preservation of the surfaces. Counterfeits are mostly high grade electrotypes. They can be very difficult to detect, and authentication of any Chain cent is highly recommended.

Today, Chain cents are among the rarest and most beloved of all United States coins. It is virtually impossible for 21st century collectors to look at one today with the same lack of appreciation expressed by 18th century viewers. The Chain cent is indeed a coin whose numismatic importance and rarity far outweighs any concerns that may have been expressed in previous centuries about its design and aesthetic appeal.

Wreath Cent (1793)

The first copper coins of the new United States Mint struck for general circulation were the 1793 Chain Cents. These historic coins also had the unpleasant distinction of being the first American design subjected to intense public ridicule.

Abuse of some kind greeted nearly all new U.S. coin designs over the next 200 years, but the fledgling Philadelphia Mint was not ready for it in 1793. It was not that Mint personnel were unusually sensitive, but the criticisms echoed in the halls of Congress, where calls for abolishing the Mint entirely were soon heard, made them question their prospects for continued employment.

Adding to the Mint’s woes was the lack of decent steel for desperately needed coinage dies, a shortage of quality copper and the rickety and unreliable rollers needed to flatten copper into sheets. Working hours were brutal, though a daily rum ration eased some of the pain. More frightening and disruptive was the annual outbreak of seemingly inescapable yellow fever that paralyzed Philadelphia in the late summer months, sending its affluent residents fleeing to the countryside. The poor had no such escape, and the death rate was alarming.

Despite these obstacles, a quick change of the cent design seemed desirable, and Mint Director David Rittenhouse first told coiner Adam Eckfeldt to delete the offending chains from the reverse. He retained the flowing-hair Liberty head which had caused the Pennsylvania Gazette to report in March of 1793 that “Liberty appears to be in a fright.”

Unknown to newspaper writers of the era, the first Liberty heads were actually inspired by French medalist Augustin Dupre’s elegant Libertas Americana medal, a public relations effort of American statesman Benjamin Franklin. Struck by the Paris Mint in 1783 to hail American victories in the Revolution, the medal’s handsome Liberty displayed streaming locks symbolizing freedom.

The new Liberty head had long, separate locks blowing even more wildly than those on the Chain coins. The new reverse presented an elegant wreath of elongated leaves resembling laurel, the ancient symbol of victory. Just above the heavy bow appear three-part leaves or trefoils suggesting cotton or even maple leaves. Thrusting outward are hair-thin stems bearing three or four tiny round berries wholly unlike laurel. (Later large cents all bear undeniably laurel wreaths with their large round berries, but no one knows for sure just what plant or plants Rittenhouse was depicting in 1793 on his obverses or reverses. It is possible that the aged scientist had a composite in mind for his elegant wreath, but the truth may never be known).

A small fraction 1/100 appears below the bow, a reminder to most Americans then living that the new nation’s coinage was decimal. Another reminder appeared on the edges of some varieties, the incuse message ONE HUNDRED FOR A DOLLAR, followed by either one or two leaves. A third edge type is the ornate Vine and Bars design, and the Sheldon 11 variety is known with all three edges!

The great copper cataloguer Dr. William H. Sheldon divided the Wreath cents into nine varieties that are within collectors’ reach and four varieties termed NC or “Non-Collectable”. NC varieties are scattered among all early cent dates and are the dream of many a sharp-eyed copper specialist.

All varieties but one show a three-leaf laurel-like sprig of varied shape just above the date. The exceptions are NC-2 and NC-3, the “Strawberry Leaf” rarities. On Sheldon varieties S-5, -6 and -7 this sprig is well designed and outspread; on S-8 and -9 it shows a stem following the curvature of the date with upright leaves. S-10 has an oddly stemless sprig with three skinny, angular leaves, and the three S-11 coins show a sprig “windblown” toward the right.

Perhaps four or five low-grade examples of the ultra-rare “Strawberry Leaf” (NC-2 and NC-3) exist today. Discovered before 1869 by pioneer copper collector Richard Winsor, this rarity was first called the “Clover Leaf.” Here again, no one knows with absolute certainty what plant was intended by die sinker Eckfeldt or even why such a visible change was attempted.

Philadelphia Mint records show that 63,353 Wreath cents were struck. Many were saved, probably as curiosities. A number were set aside by visiting Britons, for whom the coin collecting hobby was already well established. Possibly 6% or 7% of the mintage survives today, most in very low grades. As many as 40 pieces may exist in Extremely Fine-40 or better. One example of Sheldon 5 was formerly recognized as MS-70 by the Early American Copper Society (EAC), but that pre-dated the advent of certified grading. Originally in the William Cutler Atwater collection sold by the colorful B. Max Mehl in 1945, this coin is remarkably well centered and appears to have been struck on a polished planchet. It may have been prepared as a presentation piece, not unlike several other specimens from the collections of Dr. Sheldon and George Clapp.

Assembling a collection of all varieties other than the NC’s is a reasonable goal if the buyer does not insist on all mint state examples. Collecting all varieties, including the NC’s is virtually impossible, though discovery of unknown specimens in the past has had a way of making rare, though collectable coins out of Non-Collectables.

More concentrated study has been lavished on early large cents than on any other U.S. series of any era. The body of specialized literature is immense, and specialty clubs exist to nurture such collecting. Because of the dedication of cataloguers such as Sylvester S. Crosby, J.N.T. Levick, Edouard Frossard, David Proskey and Francis Doughty in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and Dr. William H. Sheldon in more recent times, the early large cents and particularly the 1793-94 issues are well charted. Today’s collector need not immerse himself in this field, however, to get a good overview of it and assemble a creditable collection.

Grading Wreath cents can be quite challenging, due to the variable quality of their copper planchets. Although the points that will first show wear are Liberty’s hair at the forehead and left of her ear and the leaves of the wreath, surfaces and color are important in ascertaining higher grades. Many specialists adhere to standards agreed on by the EAC.

In the summer of 1793, Rittenhouse appointed portraitist Joseph Wright acting engraver and assigned him the task of making new die punches for the cent. Wright died of yellow fever in September, but not before completing his new Liberty Cap design. This beautiful cent would replace the Wreath design, making its debut in the fall of 1793.

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NGC Auction Central Disclaimer

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